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CoCo Bubble Tea in Hot Water over Pro-Hong Kong Text on Receipts

Boycotting bubble tea? The popular CoCo Tea company is not so popular on Weibo this week.

Manya Koetse

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One of China’s most popular bubble tea brands is in hot water after one of its Hong Kong shops included an encouraging message to Hong Kong people on its receipts amidst ongoing demonstrations. The company’s apologies are not sufficient, many netizens say.

Popular milk tea company CoCo (CoCo都可) is under fire in mainland China for displaying the text “Go Hong Kong People!” (or: “Add Oil, Hongkongers!”) on the receipts of one of its shops in the Wanchai district of Hong Kong.

The receipt, dated June 16, started making its rounds on Chinese social media on August 6. Many take it as a sign that CoCo supports Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

CoCo also triggered controversy for supposedly listing ‘Taiwan’ as a country in its website’s list of countries where the brand operates, separate from ‘China’.

Some netizens are now vowing to boycott the brand for allegedly supporting both Hong Kong protesters and Taiwan independence.

CoCo is a global bubble tea brand that first opened in Taipei in 1997. Over the past two decades, CoCo has opened over 2000 stores worldwide with locations in countries such as the US, UK, Thailand, Korea, and Australia. It is one of the most popular milk tea chains in mainland China.

On August 9, the tea shop released a statement concerning the controversy. The hashtag “CoCo Statement” (#coco声明#) became the most-searched hashtag on Weibo on Friday, attracting 300 million views.

CoCo stated that the receipt in the Wanchai district shop was altered by the staff of this shop, and that their business is now suspended.

It further alleged that the screenshots of the ‘Taiwan’ listing circulating on social media are actually fake. They do not come from their official website, CoCo stated.

The company also added that “the Hong Kong region is an inseparable part of the People’s Republic of China.”

At time of writing, the official website of the CoCo Fresh Tea & Juice brand was not accessible.

CoCo is not the first bubble tea shop to trigger controversy this week. Another company, Yifang Fruit Tea, faced online backlash when it closed one of its Hong Kong shops for a day and put up a sign that said: “Stand together with Hong Kongers”.

Many big milk tea brands are Taiwanese; pearl milk tea or bubble tea was first invented in Taiwan in 1988 and has since become an important part of Taiwanese food culture. Over the past decade, the bubble tea craze has also blown over to mainland China (read more here).

Bubble Tea

The Guardian reported on August 8 that the Yifang Fruit Tea controversy also spread to two other bubble tea brands.

In response to the issue, Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen posted a picture of flavored tea on social media, writing that “China’s political power has invaded into various nonpolitical areas” and that “for people living in a society with freedom and democracy, we need to stay on high alert for issues like this.”

Meanwhile, on Weibo, many netizens are not too satisfied with CoCo’s apologies and demand that the brand also shares its statement on Twitter and Instagram – not just on Chinese social media.

Others complain that the company did not use an official seal for its apology statement, and have not indicated how it will handle this controversy.

But there are also those who say this supposed scandal is all a fuss over nothing. “Essentially, there’s nothing wrong with them encouraging Hong Kong people,” one commenter writes.

“Boycotting the stores in China will only hurt the position of Chinese franchise owners,” some Weibo users argue.

This incident shows some similarities to another controversy that occurred in 2018 involving the Taiwanese company 85°C Bakery Café. When president Tsai Ing-wen paid a visit to a Los Angeles chain of the café during her United States trip, mainland netizens accused the company of supporting Taiwan independence.

To read more about general discussions on Chinese social media regarding the Hong Kong protests, check our latest here.

By Manya Koetse

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. Please note that your comment below will need to be manually approved if you’re a first-time poster here.

©2019 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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China Digital

From Tea Farmer to Online Influencer: Uncle Huang and China’s Rural Live Streamers

‘Cunbo’ aka ‘rural livestreaming’ is all the rage. A win-win situation for farmers, viewers, and Alibaba.

Manya Koetse

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This is the “WE…WEI…WHAT?” column by Manya Koetse, originally published in German by Goethe Institut China on Goethe.de: “VOM TEEBAUERN ZUM INFLUENCER: ONKEL HUANG UND CHINAS LÄNDLICHE LIVESTREAMER.” 

The past year has been super tumultuous when it comes to the topics that have been dominating Chinese social media. The Coronavirus crisis was preceded by other big issues that were all the talk online, from the US-China trade war to the protests in Hong-Kong, the swine flu, and heightened censorship and surveillance.

Despite the darker side to China’s online environment, however, there were also positive developments. One of the online trends that became popular this year comes with a term of its own, namely cūnbō (村播): rural livestreaming.  Chinese farmers using livestreaming as a way to sell their products and promote their business have become a more common occurrence on China’s e-commerce and social media platforms. 

mage via Phoenix News (iFeng Finance).

The social media + e-commerce mix, also called ‘social shopping,’ is booming in the PRC. Online platforms where the lines between social media and e-commerce have disappeared are now more popular than ever. There’s the thriving Xiaohongshu (小红书Little Red Book) platform, for example, but apps such as TikTok (known as Douyin in China) also integrate shopping in the social media experience.

Over recent years, China’s e-commerce giant Alibaba has contributed to the rising popularity of ‘social shopping.’ Its Taobao Live unit (also a separate app), which falls under the umbrella of China’s biggest online marketplace Taobao, is solely dedicated to shopping + social media, mainly mobile-centered. It’s a recipe for success: Chinese mobile users spend over six hours online per day, approximately 72% of them shop online, and nearly 65% of mobile internet users watch livestreaming.

Every minute of every day, thousands of online shoppers tune in to dozens of different channels where sellers promote anything from food products to makeup or pet accessories. The sellers, also called ‘hosts’ or ‘presenters,’ make their channels attractive by incorporating makeup tutorials, cooking classes, giving tips and tricks, chatting away and joking, and promising their buyers the best deal or extra presents when purchasing their products.                

Livestreaming on Taobao goes on 24/7 (screenshots from Taobao app by author).

Sometimes thousands of viewers tune in to one channel at the same. They can ‘follow’ their favorite hosts and can interact with them directly by leaving comments on the livestreams. They can compliment the hosts (“You’re so funny!”), ask questions about products (“Does this also come in red?”), or leave practical advice (“You should zoom in when demonstrating this product!”). The product promoted in the livestreams can be directly purchased through the Taobao system.

Over the past year, Alibaba has increased its focus on rural sellers within the livestreaming e-commerce business. Countryside sellers even have their own category highlighted on the Taobao Live app. Chinese tech giant Alibaba launched its ‘cūnbō project’ in the spring of 2019 to promote the use of its Taobao Live app amongst farmers. The most influential livestreaming farmers get signed by Alibaba to elevate Taobao Live’s rural business to a higher level.

One of these influential Chinese farmers who has made a name for himself through livestreaming is Huang Wensheng, a tea farmer from the mountainous Lichuan area in Hunan Province.

Uncle Huang livestreaming from the tea fields (image via Sohu.com)

Huang, who is nicknamed ‘Uncle Farmer,’ sells tea through his channel, where he shows viewers his work and shares stories and songs from his village. He is also known to talk about what he learned throughout his life and will say things such as: “It is important to work hard; not necessarily so much to change the world , but to make sure the world does not change you.”

With just three to five livestreaming sessions per week, ‘Uncle’ Huang reaches up to twenty million viewers per month, and, according to Chinese media reports, has seen a significant increase in his income, earning some 10,000 yuan (€1300) per week.

Huang is not the only farmer from his hometown using Taobao Live to increase their income; there are some hundred rural livestreamers in Lichuan doing the same.

Some random screenshots by author from rural livestreaming channels, where online shoppers get a glimpse of countryside life

The rural livestreaming category is significantly different from the urban fashionistas selling brand makeup and the latest must-haves: these hosts do not have the polished look, glamorous clothes, or stylish backgrounds. They usually film outside while doing their work or offer a glimpse into their often humble rooms or kitchens.

Viewers get to see the source of the products sold by these rural sellers; they often literally go to the fields to show where their agricultural products grow, or film themselves getting the eggs from their chickens or the oranges from the trees. From fruits to potatoes and flowers, and from fresh tea to home-made chili sauce – a wide range of products is promoted and sold through Taobao Live these days.

Some rural livestreamers are trying to stay ahead of their competition by coming up with novel concepts. A young farmer from Sichuan, for example, recently offered viewers the opportunity to “adopt” a rooster from his farm, allowing them to interact with ‘their’ rooster through social media and even throwing the occasional birthday party for some lucky roosters.

Image via sina.com.

Examples such as these show that although the countryside livestreamers usually lack glitter and glam, they can be just as entertaining – or perhaps even more so – than their urban counterparts.

Who benefits from the recent ‘cūnbōboom? One could argue that the rising popularity of livestreaming farmers is a win-win situation from which all participants can profit in some way. The commercial interests are big for Alibaba. The company has been targeting China’s countryside for years, as it’s where China’s biggest consumption growth will happen while mobile internet penetration is still on the rise. Alibaba earns profits from an increasing number of rural e-commerce buyers, as well as e-commerce sellers.

Alibaba’s early focus on the countryside as a new home for e-commerce has previously also led to the phenomenon of so-called ‘Taobao Villages,’ where a certain percentage of rural residents are selling local specialties, farm products or other things via the Taobao platform with relatively little transaction costs.

Many Chinese villages and farmers are profiting from the further spread of Taobao in the countryside. Not only does Alibaba invest in logistics and e-commerce trainings in rural areas, these e-commerce channels are also a way to directly boost sales and income for struggling farmers.

Chinese media predict that the rural livestreaming trend will only become more popular in the years to come, bringing forth many more influential farmers like Huang.

But besides the commercial and financial gains that come from the rising popularity of rural livestreamers, there is also a significant and noteworthy social impact.  At  a time in which China’s rapidly changing society sees a widening gap between urban and rural areas, these rural channels serve as a digital bridge between countryside sellers and urban consumers, offering netizens a real and unpolished look into the lives of farmers in others parts of the country, and gives online buyers more insight and understanding of where their online products came from.

Taobao Live is actually like a traditional “farmers’ market,” but now it is digital, open 24/7, and accessible to anyone with a mobile phone. It’s the Chinese farmers’ market of the 21st century.

By Manya Koetse
Follow @whatsonweibo

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

This text was first published by Goethe-Institut China under a CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0-DE license (Creative Commons) as part of a monthly column in collaboration with What’s On Weibo.

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China Marketing & Advertising

Didi Announces Relaunch of Hitch Carpooling, Igniting Controversy with Curfew for Women

This week, Didi announced it would allow users to ‘hitch’ a ride again, but the proposed curfew for female passengers stirred controversy.

Jessica Colwell

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20-year-old Xiao Zhao was murdered by her Hitch driver in August of 2018.

Over a year after China’s most popular car-hailing company Didi Chuxing took down its carpooling service, news of its relaunch – including a curfew for female passengers – became a huge topic of debate on Chinese social media this week.

Earlier this week, Didi Chuxing (滴滴出行) announced that it would be relaunching its carpooling service Hitch (滴滴顺风车 Didi Shunfengche) on November 20 in seven trial cities.

The announcement comes after more than a year of safety overhauls and periods of public discussion following the murder of two female passengers committed by Hitch drivers in 2018.

But the new safety guidelines, which included an 8 pm curfew for female riders, drew major outrage from online commenters.

Hitch is a carpooling app where riders and drivers heading in the same direction can team up and split the cost. The two murder cases in May and August of 2018, coupled with multiple reported cases of sexual assault, led to widespread criticism that Didi does not sufficiently vet drivers and ensure the safety of its (female) riders.

In response, Didi suspended the Hitch service indefinitely in the summer of 2018 and revamped its safety protocols across the entire platform.

Hi, long time no see,” began a statement from Didi Hitch’s Weibo account announcing the relaunch on November 6: “After 435 days of hard work, we developed 18 iterations, optimized 330 functions, and received 300,000 user suggestions. Finally, we decided to move forward, hoping that Hitch can shoulder our responsibilities and create value for the public.”

Didi’s announcement on Weibo.

The trial operations are set to begin in Harbin, Taiyuan, Shijiazhuang, and Changzhou on November 20 of this year, and expand to Shenyang, Beijing, and Nantong on November 29.

Didi further specified its trial operations, writing that services would be active from 5.00 in the morning until 23.00 at night, adding in between brackets that the services for women would end at 20.00 at night.

Many Weibo users were ecstatic at the news of the Hitch service starting again, but discussions were soon dominated by the question of whether or not Didi’s curfew for women was a sexist measure.

“What kind of protection is limiting the movement of women?! How about please restrict the damn criminals instead, okay?” one Weibo user commented on a popular news post about the story.

“After an entire year of discussion, this is your plan??” others asked: “Sure, I agree to the rule that women cannot ride after 8 pm, as long as men are also not allowed to leave home after 8 pm.”

One lawyer commented: “Stupid. Is this just a disclaimer from Didi? Self-protection? Or is it blatant discrimination against customers? In the face of a frequent and dangerous problem, rather than be concerned with prevention, protection, and response, they simply come up with strategies that refuse service to passengers.”

Didi responded that both the curfew and a 50km limit placed on rides were temporary safety measures during the trial relaunch period while the company continues to improve its services, but it did not help cool down discussions. Hashtags such as “Didi Hitch’s New Plan is Sex Discrimination” (#滴滴顺风车新方案被指性别歧视#) soon made their way across social media.

Besides the curfew, the relaunch announcement of Hitch also included an extensive range of other new safety features and regulations, including an entire program devoted to the safety of women. We have translated it below:

 

“PROTECTION PLAN FOR WOMEN”

1. Anti-single-picking mode: hide personal information and adopt a two-way confirmation mechanism to avoid the danger of drivers targeting single women.

2. Utilizing travel behavior records and other data, an algorithm will be integrated to find the most suitable fellow travelers for female users.

3. A customized “female safety assistant” includes the following features:

1 Rider can view relevant information such as the age of the car, the driver’s age, and the time of the most recent facial recognition verification of the driver

2 Reminder to share your route while traveling, availability of emergency contact services, real-time location protection, and other security functions.

3 Can check trip safety information and discover whether any abnormal behavior has taken place. In the case of abnormal behavior such as route deviation and long-term stopping, the emergency contact person will be informed immediately.

4. Special protections for women’s travel: long-distance trips require riders to undergo facial recognition, female users must set up emergency contacts, the driver will automatically audio record the trip (encrypted and uploaded to the platform).

5. Temporary restrictions: no cross-city trips or trips longer than 50 km will be allowed, and women will not be allowed as passengers from 8 pm to 5 am.

 

Although some of the new proposed policies above were met with online support*, as they were clearly designed to address the specific circumstances that led to the two murders in 2018, the curfew for women predominantly caused online anger.

Many commenters pointed out that one of the Didi murders was committed in broad daylight, not at night, which makes the curfew rule all the more confounding.

When big Weibo accounts such as the All-China’s Women Federation also started commenting on the issue, Didi Hitch apparently chose to avert further controversy; on November 7, Didi announced that during the trial period of its continued operations, services for all passengers, male and female, will now be limited to 8 pm.

“That’s right, we’re all equal as passengers,” some commented on the sudden policy change. Others, however, saw the change as a confirmation that Didi Hitch’s policies were indeed sexist.

Some commenters suggested something else to supposedly ensure Didi passengers’ safety: “Perhaps Didi should no longer allow male drivers to work after 8.00 pm instead.”

With 2018 being Didi’s toughest business year yet, this week’s controversy shows that the company still has to work hard this year and in the year to come to win back its customers’ trust, especially when it comes to its female passengers.

By Jessica Colwell

*(One of the more popular safety suggestions submitted to Didi during its period of public comment was the plan for all Hitch drivers’ information to be checked through a third-party credit data provider, although it is not sure when or if this proposed measure will be realized in the future.)

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2019 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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